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Consultative Selling Within Your Organization

Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.

by Kerri Barber

Kerri Barber

One of the biggest challenges of managing technical communicators is proving the team’s value within an organization. To do so, many management consultants, myself included, use financial evidence and other quantifiable data to illustrate how the team supports the company’s goals. While statistics are clearly measurable and demonstrate value, other efforts can be far more challenging and result in even greater value by:

  • Making real connections to your customers on a personal level, and
  • Learning to speak your customers’ language.

It’s called collaborative consulting.

Often, technical writers find themselves in a situation where they have to change perception. Barriers within organizations arise when others do not fully understand the value your team can deliver. Sometimes, programmers and IT personnel innately believe that because they develop systems systems, they are the most qualified to document them. In turn, management and financial professionals may see the technical-communications function purely as overhead or a cost center line item and, in a downturn, expendable. By cultivating a strong perception of your team’s contributions and elevating the understanding of your expertise, the consultative approach helps you raise the profile of the work your team does, and expand your influence.

Preparing for Market

Before you can take your products and services to market, a little house cleaning may be in order. Now is the time to scrutinize your department’s operation and look for inefficiencies in your own processes. For example, ask yourself:

  • Is your terminology consistent across the team?
  • Are you mandating the use of templates when appropriate?

These types of key items can determine how easy it is do business with your department. Fact sheets, talking points, process documents, and instruction manuals must be consistent in their mode and method of delivery to obtain a high degree of predictability. Further, they need to be accurate and governed by a clear process for maintaining updates, version control, and delivery in a way that your customers are easily able to consume and distribute your work to others.

Inconsistencies across a team can become pervasive—especially if you have recently hired new employees, contracted with temporary staff, or have a high volume of deliverables without investing an equal amount of effort into managing your foundational operations. To help spot inconsistencies and their related warning signs, start by answering these and other related questions:

  • Does the team agree on what type of information each document should contain?
  • Do they use a defined template consistently?
  • Do they know where to obtain the tools needed to complete a task?
  • How often do you update documents?
  • How do you deliver documents to internal customers?
  • How do you expect team members to interact with your internal customers?
  • What process do you follow to gather updates?
  • Are you relying on the content owners to engage you?
  • What do your customers say about how easy it is to do business with you?
  • When was the last time you solicited honest feedback from your customers regarding your team’s performance?
  • Are you engaging an internal controls or process auditor to help evaluate your processes, and if so, to what extent?

You must invest adequate time to properly train new staff in order to establish expectations and to ensure that existing members have maintained consistency in their delivery. Taking this action, along with a comprehensive operational audit, goes a long way in improving the way you interact with key customer groups within your company. It will also make your job as the top salesperson for your department easier when you are ready to take the next step—consultative selling.

Collaborating with Creatives

Managers often overlook their role to sell their team’s value and ability. Aside from cultivating a staff of high performers and managing deadlines, you must also schedule time to meet with your internal customers and identify new prospective customers. This can pose a challenge for the manager who normally relies on others to perform this function. But clearly, there is no substitute for interpersonal interaction to get your message across effectively and to change apathetic perceptions.

At its core, collaboration consists of sharing ideas to solve a problem. This is the foundation of consultative selling. For most managers with introverted, analytical personalities, this type of selling can be quite tricky, because it requires additional skills outside the realm of the typical management role. It takes practice to study and understand your customers and the way they think. Learning to listen is the surest means of getting customers to help you identify the problems you can solve for them by using your talents as a pragmatic expert.

It is a fact that while your professional world may center on a linear approach to problem solving, many of your counterparts will be creative thinkers who seem at times to be erratic and have very little capacity to articulate what they need. Often, these people know what they don’t want when they see it, and yet have a high capacity for delivering results that are effective, engaging, and evolve through a more-art-than-science approach to problem solving. Examples of these roles include professionals in marketing, public relations, investor relations, corporate communications, training professionals, and even key executive leaders. Reaching out to these people in a meaningful way may seem like a challenge. But in doing so, you will win valued customers who will sing your praises through the rest of the company and the executive team.

Making a personal connection with these people can be very easy, no matter how well you master the art of small talk. Why? Because these creative thinkers are usually extroverts who tend to relish change, and who thrive in situations that allow for a free-flow of ideas. These people tend to seek out experts and have a high regard for professional advice, provided it is delivered in a way that suggests flexibility and interaction. Data proving your value will have meaning, but your ability to make a personal connection will ultimately seal the deal for customers pursuing more collaborative opportunities with your team. Win them over and they will become enthusiastic supporters of your ability to help them achieve greater efficiency and a stronger approach to technical delivery.

The Consultative Approach

Consultants are problem solvers armed with an arsenal of experience and proven solutions. They are called in to make processes more efficient, remove barriers, and facilitate delivery on commitments. You have the full knowledge of what you can deliver. Using that knowledge, your goal is to get your prospective new customer to realize the value you bring to the table. Doing this successfully means making an initial connection on a personal level that will help convey a feeling of optimism about developing a partnership with you.

The first step in this approach is to engage customers so they can provide answers to questions that help you better illustrate your value. Reserve a time to meet informally—away from traditional business areas, such as office cubicles or conference rooms. If possible, meet a customer in a company lounge area, your company’s cafe or, ideally, suggest a walk around the company campus. By removing creative customers from the typical office environment, you begin to trigger their creative thinking and extroverted nature. Begin with appropriate personal questions that invite them to share aspects of themselves they don’t normally have an opportunity to speak about. Ideally, ask questions that will help reveal their personality and interests. For example:

  • What keeps you busy when you’re not at work?
  • Do you volunteer with a charity?
  • How did you become interested in your line of work?

Resist bringing distracting items (e.g., cell phones and other devices) with you, and avoid taking notes. You should focus on customers to observe and listen to what they have to say. Offer follow-up questions when appropriate. Use this activity is to establish common ground and demonstrate an interest in making a connection that will help ease customers into revealing the pain points or problems they are trying to solve on their own. During the conversation, ask the customer questions about why they are passionate about the work they do, professional matters, and issues that cause them concern.

If their commentary becomes negative, strive to frame your acknowledgement in a positive way, but avoid jumping in to make recommendations to solve their problems during this initial discussion. The purpose of this time investment is to establish empathy and, at a very high level, outline the services you may be able to provide. You will be cultivating their curiosity and an eagerness to receive your ideas further. The points expressed at this meeting will become the focus of a more thoughtful analysis delivered at a later time that conveys the ways you can help them achieve specific goals.

By drafting your proposal, however informally, at a later time, you help establish that the solutions you have outlined are formed from a thoughtful perspective, tailored specifically to the customer’s needs. Remember to reiterate their expressed pain points as you clearly outline the extent of the benefits they gain from greater collaboration with you and your team.

Follow-up and Relationship Building

Sometimes the timing just isn’t conducive to begin collaborating with a new customer. But that should not deter you from nurturing an interest in their goals. Reach out to them often by using various strategic methods that help highlight your team’s value. Simple solutions, such as a feature in your company newsletter about your successes, can go a long way in keeping you at top of mind. A few brief case-study examples might help others see themselves winning with your help. So provide them with the framework to envision that scenario. Consider developing a quarterly newsletter of your own to distribute to managers across the company touting your services and notable successes. The brevity of a single page highlighting your work can be an effective means of motivating new contacts to seek your expertise.

These progressive approaches can have a lasting effect and help change perceptions across your company. Developing your skills as an empathetic listener brings with it challenges and equally significant rewards that are just as recognizable as the ability to meet deadlines. As a manager and leader of technical writers, your goal is to help others recognize the value you bring, not only in the form of ROI value, but as a collaborative partner within the organization.

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About the Author

Kerri Barber is a management consultant, writing coach, and a valued member of the Corporate Communications team at Hallmark Services Corporation where she is working to help move the personal insurance industry into the new retail market. Her work has helped business owners across the globe work more efficiently and better communicate with diverse teams for successful outcomes.

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